LISBON — Even as she was the subject of the exhibition The Sacred and the Profane in 1997 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, I had never heard of the Counter-Reformation Baroque (and Bodegón) painter Josefa de Óbidos (1630–1684) before a trip to Lisbon. But apparently she has had something of an inferior reputation there that this exhibition at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga seeks to correct: the idea that she is an unusual and interesting oddity, but ultimately a provincial painter of trite and lugubrious spirituality. Although I do somewhat agree with the first half of the assessment, and it lends her work an uncertain charm, I am not at all in agreement with the second proposition.
Born in Seville in 1630, de Óbidos was the daughter of the accomplished painter Baltazar Gomes Figueira (1604–1674) (some of his paintings are in the show). Her father moved the family back to Portugal in 1634, his native country, where Figueira continued his career as an artist and where de Óbidos spent most of her life being educated by Augustinian nuns.
But she was hardly a backcountry bumpkin. Of aristocracy, she grew up under the tutelage of her father and had access to the works of the great masters of Flemish, Spanish, Italian, and French art through her mother’s father, an avid art collector. At 31 she emancipated herself (with parental consent), acquiring administrative independence over her life and work, which enabled her to become an artist of both secular and religious subjects. She died in Óbidos, Portugal, and was buried in the Church of Saint Peter there. She is considered to be one of the most accomplished painters of 17th-century Portugal and is especially significant because of the recognition she gained in an art period dominated by men.
Throughout her life, de Óbidos executed several religious altarpieces for churches and convents in central Portugal, as well as paintings for private collections. Her mid-career works, such as the sensuous “Still life with Watermelon and Pears” (ca. 1670), are visually alluring, charming, darkly entertaining, and technically cultivated in the Baroque way of rendering bucolic experience as seductive and opulent. Among her chief religious works are the five panels for the “Saint Catherine” altarpiece of the Church of the Holy Mary (Santa Maria) (1661) in Óbidos, and the altarpiece of “Saint Theresa of Ávila” for the Carmelite Convent (1673) in Cascais.
Though she certainly executed her fair share of trite religious paintings, such as “Marriage of St. Catherine” (1647) and “Faustino das Neves” (c.1670), two of de Óbidos’s paintings are quite frankly kinky: “La lactation de Saint Bernard” (1648) and “S. Bernardo e a Virgem” (1648). In them she depicts the Virgin Mary squirting breast milk into the mouth of Saint Bernad. In other paintings, the bare feet of her religious subjects take on an enlarged proportion that was quite profound and disturbing in a funny way.
Inspired by the Counter-Reformation of the Council of Trent (1545–63) and the reform wings of the Jesuit and Carmelite orders, all of her work was commissioned by religious houses or churches, or for the private chapels of wealthy patrons. As such, she did at times fill her art with stock religious sentimentality (she frequently paints St. Joseph as strikingly heroic and robust) but also painted numinous scenes of fear-provoking penitence and mystical weddings, as in her melancholy “St. Teresa of Avila, Mystic Spouse of Christ” (1672) that reflects the ecstasies of St. Teresa of Avila.
The splendid “Child Jesus Salvator Mundi” (1680) disproves de Obidos’s trite spirituality and is one in a series of paintings where, as I see it, she paints Jesus as a girl. Astounding, these trans-spiritual paintings sent a chill up my spine. Poised in balanced contrapposto, Josefa found an extravagant tone for an old theme that is exhilaratingly contemporary: an apparently feminine depiction of Jesus that is without irony, sentiment, shock, or strain. Looking at it feels like a fantasy.
There is an unspeakable, slightly terrifying, sensation in the divine presence of this perfect, seemingly hermaphroditic beauty. The gentle youth — liberated from sex and time — is healthy and calm, with flirtatious, rosy cheeks. The earthly is re-established through the dainty flowers sprouting from the ground. The world has briefly revealed itself as mythic, perfect, eternal, and chaste.
The Baroque is saturated with the power of deception and with make-believe and trompe l’oeil effects. Looking at “Child Jesus Salvator Mundi,” I found myself tipsy with a peculiar Baroque vision: overwhelmed, engulfed, and supersaturated by a magical, metaphysical space — one I recently encountered at the Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome show at the Petit Palais. “Child Jesus Salvator Mundi” demonstrates to me perfectly that the Baroque is the product of passionate Catholicism rather than sober Protestantism. Her other paintings (more than 130 works from several Portuguese and international institutions like the Prado Museum and the Escorial Monastery) are packed with ethereal flowers, throbbing stars, false arches, dripping fruit, twisting leaves, winding columns, floating virgins, spinning clouds, and resplendent angels. Her mystical, Baroque artistic expression may produce mild ecstasy in some (moi) or befuddlement in others. The important point is that de Óbidos’s version of Baroque, mysterious sensation undermined conventional religious and pictorial clarity.
Despite the confused reception her work has garnered over the years, the esteem with which Josefa’s work has been held has continued over time so that a large quantity of her work has indeed survived. This is quite unusual among Portuguese artists, and particularly so for a woman who was confined to a small town like Obidos, where she remained almost all her life. Nonetheless, she became a highly reputed exponent of the Portuguese Baroque, particularly following the restoration of Portugal from Spanish rule, which brought to her work an exaggerated and festive, theatrical component.
In “St. Teresa of Avila, Mystic Spouse of Christ” (1672), de Óbidos liberally employs phantasmagorical illusions particular to the Baroque: for example, the fruit and flower petals that hover around Teresa’s head, symbolizing her otherworldly consciousness as a way to boost the beholder’s faith in the supernatural. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s deservingly famous “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” (1652) exemplifies de Óbidos’s intent to inspire a sense of intense wonderment that verges on the euphoric. Philosophically, the painting “St. Teresa of Avila, Mystic Spouse of Christ” is indicative of the Baroque language of multiple ambiguities and excesses.
This associative imagery that is constantly in flux can also be seen in the sexually ambiguous “St. John the Baptist” (ca. 1670–1675). Through exposing John the Baptist’s right breast, typical in religious feminine iconography, this painting displays an enchantment with nebulous sexuality. Though the right side of John the Baptist’s torso is frequently shown in paintings, here, his bare breast is sensually represented with the same sense of nourishment and loving care — God’s provision for the Christian — that is seen in depictions of the Virgin Mary. Josefa de Óbidos’s painterly decisions helped wean art away from the fiction of a classical “true” vision and reveal instead the possibilities which open up for inventing new arrangements of form.
Josefa de Óbidos e a invenção do Barroco Português (Josefa de Óbidos and the Invention of Portuguese Baroque) continues at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (Rua das Janelas Verdes, Lisbon) September 6.